As part of its “Hometown Heroes Initiative,” the Page Police Department announced last week it had hired three new fulltime police officers.
While good news for a department that has publicly outlined its chronic understaffing concerns for several years now, the most notable aspects of the announcement are the recruits themselves. All three officers are either young Page or LeChee residents and Page High School graduates.
Bridgette Black, Desmond Sandoval and Ty Bennet graduated from the Northern Arizona Regional Training Academy in Prescott this May. After five months of law enforcement basic training, they are now fully employed by the Page PD. The three are on track to becoming fully-fledged law enforcement officers by September.
For two of the recruits, their hiring was perhaps a case of right place at the right time. Sandoval and Black, who both had been in the process of applying for the Navajo Department of Public Safety, were made aware of the open positions at the Page PD. Bennett, on the other hand, had previously worked at the department’s jail, and has a family history of employment at the public safety building.
Sandoval, 24, said he felt motivated to be a good role model for both his 2-year-old son and the earliest generation of Navajo youth. He also knew — and was in turn inspired by — Sgt. Darrell Curley of the Navajo Police. Curley, a 25-year veteran with the Navajo PD, was shot and killed in 2011 near Kaibeto while responding to a domestic violence dispute.
“He was a good man and someone I looked up to,” Sandoval said.
Bennett, 21, told the Chronicle he wanted to be a force for positive change in the Page community.
“Growing up, I saw both the good and the bad in Page. I’ve seen some terrible things happen to friends and they were things I wish I could have stopped — things I wish I could have prevented. I hope now I can provide that for someone else,” he said.
27-year-old Bridgette Black, a LeChee native, is a former Navy hull maintenance technician. After serving four years of active duty, she said she returned to civilian life with a burning desire to continue public service.
“I missed it,” Black noted. “I missed the camaraderie, I missed being part of a team and that feeling you get from serving together. So I realized I wanted to bring that kind service back home to my community.”
Black, too, said her younger siblings and generations of Navajo youth motivated her decision.
Because the trio attended the academy together, they say they developed a close bond. Sitting together at a table last week at Page’s public safety facility, the three swapped a few stories from their five months at NARTA.
Black smiled as Sandoval explained how she earned the nickname “Shimá” (Navajo for ‘my mother’) among her fellow cadets.
“We told everyone in our class to start calling her that and it stuck,” Sandoval laughed. “We made a lot of contacts and a lot of friends in Prescott.”
He and Bennett described Black as naturally taking on a mother-type role of the group. Sandoval went on to explain how his instructors gave him flak for often being so quiet and laying low, while calling Bennett the “wild” one of the bunch.
“Yeah, but we all stayed out of trouble,” Bennett responded with a smirk. “It was a lot of fun, though. We learned a lot and I’m excited for what’s ahead. “
Together, they postulated, the three will make a well-balanced team.
Meeting the demand
In late 2016 and in the wake of skyrocketing overtime hours among his police officers, Page Chief of Police Frank Balkcom Sr. implored city council to approve the hiring of more active duty staff.
He commented that the city, operating under the guise of a small town of roughly 7,000 people, deals with a deceptively higher workload due to Page’s proximity — and the department’s peripheral jurisdiction over — nearby reservation towns. The more than 3 million tourists that visit the Page area each year account for a large portion of that workload as well.
Balkcom told council the department was down to 19 sworn-in personnel in 2016 — down from 23 in 2010, which itself was markedly lower than the average of the previous two decades.
Total overtime hours accumulated to more than 2,400 in the first half of 2015, the department reported. In 2012, that number was closer to 950. While down to 1,800 around the same time last year, Balkcom said the department still needed to increase its workforce. The overtime hours, he concluded, were a double-edged sword — costing the city money it could have otherwise used to hire a new officer or two, as well as mentally and physically draining the current overworked and overstressed officers.
Balkcom went on to outline a plan — “Hometown Heroes” — to hire future officers from within the Page and LeChee area communities.
“Now we’ve got three different people here with different attitudes, different styles and methods, but that’s what we need to succeed,” he said. “This is our future leadership here. We want people that will be engaged, think outside the box, and officers who are sensitive to the needs of the Page area community. I believe that is best offered from the people who already intimately know the community.”
At roughly $20,000 per person, the department paid for the trio’s academy training. Their future salaries come as part of a future $1.1 million increase to the city’s personnel budget, which will include the hiring of new EMTs and city human resource director, in the upcoming budget year.
“This is an investment in our future,” said the chief. “[The new recruits] are young, engaged, loyal to this community, and perhaps most importantly — committed.”